Nearly 185 years ago, the first national nominating party convention selected an unconventional nominee. Not only did he not belong to the party that chose him, he had contravened their defining political principle—rooted in a paranoid political panic as absurd as today’s Birther blather. He had lost the O.J. Simpson-like trial of his day. And he had no interest in being president. “Now I hate politics, and can never be a party man much less a party leader for I trust I have a good conscience, and in these times I doubt the practicability of a politician possessing such a blessing,” he told a friend. “Besides, I have not the nerve to bear the vulgar abuse which is the politician’s standing dish.”
Nevertheless, the Anti-Masonic party convention, which assembled on September 26, 1831, in Baltimore, nominated William Wirt. The 59-year-old Maryland native, born to Swiss and German immigrants, was a best-selling author, oft-quoted orator, a superlawyer despite failing to convict former Vice President Aaron Burr of treason, a former attorney general, and former Mason. Politicians back then ritualistically professed disinterest in politics, awaiting the people’s call. Henry Clay would say in 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” Wirt meant it. He was a transition figure between his mentor Thomas Jefferson’s republican elitism and his opponent “Andy” Jackson’s vulgar populism.
Wirt attended the convention reluctantly, hoping to unite the squabbling anti-Jackson factions behind Henry Clay. But the anti-Masons hated Clay, who had been a more enthusiastic Mason than Wirt. Given four hours to decide, Wirt accepted the nomination as his patriotic duty, writing, “Not only have I never sought the office, but I have long since looked at it with more of dread, than of desire.”
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